Tips to Turn Tech Execs into Green Experts

You don't need a chief sustainability officer to marry business and environmental performance. Here are 12 ways to do it

As the recession forces companies to slash jobs, one of the more secure positions is turning out to be that of chief sustainability officer. Companies across the board are including the job of marrying business to environmental performance among their C-level positions, the latest example being enterprise software maker SAP (SAP).

But these so-called CSOs aren't being hired just to buy green power, set up recycling programs, and offer employees the option to telecommute— they're being tasked with evaluating and improving the (environmental) performance of a company's core business. That means taking into account everything from what the company's products are and what they're made of to how they're made, used, and disposed of—and how that affects the long-term financial viability of the business and the long-term health of employees, host communities, and customers.

Sustainability initiatives, done right, have a good return on investment, and research shows that "greener" companies outperform their peers financially. But for many tech entrepreneurs in these lean times, hiring another executive isn't an option. So here are some tips to help any tech exec—from the founder to the CTO to the vice-president for marketing—become a sustainability leader:

Build The Business Case

Need some help understanding how sustainability applies to your business? Check out the Natural Step. Its Web site includes information about the framework and case studies, and it offers training and consulting as well.

Backcasting asks companies to envision their ideal future and set short-, mid-, and long-term goals toward getting there. The City of Portland has a downloadable worksheet that can be modified for businesses.

Peter Senge's book The Fifth Discipline (partially available online) is often cited as a source of inspiration for leaders working to build sustainability into their organization.

Trade Groups Can Help

While initial strategies may be obvious, moving on to higher-level issues may mean getting creative. Get involved with industry trade groups. The IEEE has a President's Initiative on Sustainability, for example. WiserEarth can help you find other existing groups. And if there's not a group in your niche, start one!

Consider tapping into your employees' good ideas as well. Offer employees incentives for ideas that have both financial and environmental returns.

Tackle Technology Issues

Still stuck? Hire a consultant. They can bring scientific and technical experience, as well as all the usual business chops. Small companies may want to turn to boutique firms that focus on sustainability, although many of the major consulting firms now offer sustainability practices. Many of the new sustainability-focused MBA programs may have student consultants who can help, as well.

If data centers make up a substantial part of your capital and operating expenditures, a comprehensive sustainability plan can have immediate bottom-line benefits. The Uptime Institute, The Green Grid, and Sun Microsystems' (JAVA), offer resources, tools, workshops, and more.

Make your code greener. More efficient code can save CPU usage, cutting energy use and carbon footprints; it can also mean programs that run faster, more reliably, and are easier to update. Microsoft's (MSFT) general manager of data center services, Michael Manos, has spoken about this issue in the past.

Measure and Market Your Progress

If you design hardware products, environmental policies like EPEAT, RoHS, and EnergyStar are probably on your radar. But go deeper: Consider how users interact with your products. Behavioral design, which looks at how design influences user behavior, is a fast-growing topic. The Design & Behavior Group offers resources and discussion forums.

Conduct a life-cycle assessment for your products. "What gets measured gets managed" may be a cliché, but it's true. Track your progress toward environment goals using a Web-based system from companies like Clear Standards, Planet Metrics, and Carbonetworks. IBM (IBM), SAP, and Microsoft all recently announced new software offerings that layer environmental data into existing supply chain and inventory management programs, as well.

Put together a sustainability report. The Carbon Disclosure Project helps companies track and report risk and opportunities associated with carbon regulation. The Global Reporting Initiative, founded by CERES, has clear guidelines for CSR reporting, hosts reports that use the framework, and offers verification services.

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